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Prayagraj: Migrants arrive to board Shramik special train to travel to native places, during the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, at Prayagraj Railway Station, Thursday, May 28, 2020. (PTI Photo)(PTI28-05-2020_000152B)

India’s largest media network, ABP Live, recently published UCLA Professor of History and Asian American Studies Dr. Vinay Lal‘s latest essay, “‘Be Still And Do Not Move’: The COVID-19 Migrant and the Ministry of the Soul,” about the global pandemic. Dr. Lal takes a historic look at the imposed countrywide “lockdown” that the government of India instituted more than two months ago. Dr. Lal provides some historical examples to expose the draconian move by Prime Minister Modi. To read the complete essay, click HERE.

Also, check out his informative blog, “Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal,” “a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.” You may read his earlier essays on LA Social Science.

Subscribe to LA Social Science and be the first to learn more insight and knowledge from UCLA social science experts in upcoming video/audio sessions and posts about current issues.

 

Professor Vinay Lal, UCLA Professor of History and Asian American Studies, has an informative blog titled, “Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal.” Recently, he has written “a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.”

You may read his earlier essays on LA Social Science. The following is an excerpt of Part 1 of his sixth essay, “A Global Plague, Political Epidemiology, and National Histories,” (April 27, 2020), in the series:

COVID-19 has made diarists of many of us, but the Englishman Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was, to use a contemporary expression, far ahead of the curve.  Pepys, who lived through the Great Plague that struck London in 1665-66, as well as the Great Fire of London that over the course of five days in September 1666 gutted the old City of London, was a prodigious keeper of a diary that remains unrivalled in its depiction of the daily life of a well-heeled and influential man living in times of turmoil and pestilence.  Pepys might well have been writing about the pandemic that has crept upon us:  there is an uncanny resemblance to our times in his observations of how an epidemic insinuates itself among a people, the measures that were undertaken to effect its containment and mitigation, the pallor of death that hangs over an entire society when plague strikes, and what a plague brings out in a people and a nation.

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Portrait of Samuel Pepys in 1666 by John Hayls

Pepys commenced his diary on January 1, 1660, and on 19 October 1663 first mentions the plague as having reached Amsterdam.  The following year, on June 22, Pepys recorded that there was “great talk” at the coffee-house which he was fond of frequenting of “the plague [which] grows mightily among them [the Dutch], both at sea and land.”  On July 25th, his visit to the coffee-house yielded “no news, only the plague is very hot still, and increases among the Dutch.” What impresses most thus far is that there is no intimation of the plague coming to the shores of England:  perhaps the island was shielded, after all, from every pestilence coming from the continent.  The Dutch and the English had been at war in 1652-54, and another conflict was looming on the horizon between the two naval powers competing for trade, overseas colonies, and supremacy on the seas.  There is thus something of a suggestion of the Dutch being the source of many of England’s troubles:  if they had already brought the plague of war, another form of pestilence seemed to be at hand.  Pepys, a Member of Parliament and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty whose reforms would play a significant role in transforming the English navy, to the extent that the Royal Museums Greenwich website states that he is “often described as ‘the father of the modern Royal Navy’”, would also have known that the plague sails with ships—and that England was not likely to be spared.

To read the rest of the essay, click HERE.

To read, Part II “The Pub Crawl and the Sprint of the Virus: Britain, COVID-19, and Englishness” (April 28, 2020), click HERE.

 

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Photo Credit: Aonip/iStock (https://www.marketwatch.com/story/can-my-cat-get-coronavirus-should-my-dog-wear-a-mask-what-pet-owners-need-to-know-about-covid-19-2020-04-10)

Professor Vinay Lal, UCLA Professor of History and Asian American Studies, has an informative blog titled, “Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal.” Recently, he has written “a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.”

You may read his earlier essays on LA Social Science. The following is a full reprinting of his fifth essay, “Inverted Relationships: Humans and Dogs in the Times of Coronavirus Anxiety,” (April 11, 2020), in the series:

Around a month ago, when schools, colleges, and universities began to transition to online learning, and the first edicts for the closure of museums, restaurants, and other public places were put into effect, some pet owners began to ponder whether social distancing also required them to keep their pets at arm’s length. Though COVID-19 is of zoonotic origins, having, most likely, been transmitted from a coronavirus-infected horseshoe bat to humans via another animal—the pangolin has been mentioned as the most likely host—the present strain of the coronavirus did not at first appear to transmit from humans to dogs, cats, and other domestic animals. In late February, however, a 17-year old Pomeranian, whose owner had been infected, also tested positive for the coronavirus and passed away in mid-March, though the exact cause of its death is uncertain and will be not known as its owner did not permit an autopsy; a second dog, a German shepherd, tested positive but remained asymptomatic. Then, more recently, a domestic cat in Belgium became infected but recovered after nine days.

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, shuttering the economy around the globe, leaving tens of millions without jobs security, eviscerating commonly held notions about “public culture”, altogether emptying out public spaces, and, most critically, leaving in its wake a devastating and still continuing toll of human lives and suffering, it may seem to some a luxury to revisit in light of the profound changes that the pandemic has already wrought in everyday life the manner in which we understand the relationship of human beings to animals and in particular domestic pets.  However, much in recent times has brought us to an enhanced awareness both of the staggering diversity in the non-human world, and the sheer peril in which animals, birds, and entire ecosystems have been placed in consequence of human activity and the unfortunately commonly held view that human beings have every right to exercise dominion over nature. Beyond this more, as would (mistakenly) say, abstract view, there is this consideration which suggests why thinking of domestic pets at this juncture may yield some insights into the present predicament:  60 per cent of American households have at least one pet, and 44 percent of Americans own a dog.  One may be certain that pet owners have had much occasion to think not only about whether their pets might be susceptible to COVID-19 but the comforts (and to some the hazards) of pet ownership at such a time.  Pet owners, largely reduced like everyone else to the confines of their home, are doubtless spending a good deal more of their time with their pets; in my neighborhood in Los Angeles county, as I saunter along on my evening walks during these days of lockdown, I am encountering neighbors walking their dogs whom I have never seen before in nearly twenty years at the same address.

A recent Los Angeles Times article, “Man’s best friends during crisis”, suggests that people from around the world are discovering anew the joys of pet ownership, and in particular dogs, as the pandemic keeps them largely immobilized at home.  Hospitals, even in “ordinary” times, have been known to use dogs as part of therapy treatments, and at this time of acute anxiety the comfort humans appear to derive from the companionship of dogs has become all the more palpable. Animal shelters are reporting an unusually high interest in the adoption of abandoned dogs and cats, and not only in the United States.  “Amid the lockdown,” notes the Los Angeles Times article in the syrupy language which characterizes much writing on domestic pets, “a restless and hard-headed nation has discovered that what it really needs right now is a snuggle and slurp.”  To some a new pet represents hope, indeed a vigorous affirmation of the idea that “life goes on” and that “all is well”, or will be well; to others the pet is, much like Netflix, a pleasant distraction from the doom and gloom of the news hour.  For working parents now unexpectedly saddled with small children, a domestic pet may even have the same quality of serving in loco parentis long associated with school teachers.

As the coronavirus pandemic carries on, and once we are past it, we will doubtless get to know more about how dogs (and cats) have fared in different cultural milieus. Sassafras Lowery, a “Certified Dog Trick Instructor” who has written recently for the New York Times, noted that she was struck by the considerably different behavior exhibited by dogs in European countries—Britain, Germany, France, and the Netherlands—in contrast to the United States.  She found that in Europe “dogs are everywhere”, in restaurants, bars, theaters, buses, and trains among other public venues, and they seemed welcome and thus “calm, relaxed and quiet”; in the United States, on the other hand, “pet dogs aren’t welcome in most public spaces, and often struggle in the public places where they are allowed.”  If dogs seem better integrated into the culture of everyday life in “ordinary times” more so in some European countries than in the United States, it would be interesting to know whether in a post-pandemic society the relationship between dogs and their owners might not also change.  Lowery goes on to suggest, tellingly, that “dog behavior isn’t all about the dogs. A lot of it has to do with us.”

There is a long history of the anthropomorphization of disease and it should not surprise us if cartoonists have been busy sketching the Grim Reaper in our midst.  But the skillful cartoonist can just as easily with a few line drawings render any subject both vivid and complex at the same time, and in these times of coronavirus anxiety some of them have with great sensitivity suggested the inverted relationships of humans to dogs. I would like to take up for brief discussion three cartoons shared with me from friends in India through the popular messaging service, WhatsApp. In the first, just as the dog is about to leave home to paint the town red, he says to his owner:  “Be Good . . . Back Soon!”

DogVirusCartoon1

This cartoon requires, most people would say, no interpretation.  Even those who are not dog owners are entirely familiar with the scenario: as the owner leaves home, he or she speaks to their dog as they would to their child:  be good, don’t mess up the place too much, and don’t do anything naughty.  Now the dog owner has been put in that place, indeed he has been put, the dog appears to be saying rather gleefully, in his place:  the inversion is only possible because humans are now commanded to stay indoors and must surrender the exterior space to the lower species. The cartoon plays upon notions of interiority and exteriority; but it also tugs at notions of freedom and restraint.  The leash that remains upon the dog’s neck suggests that the Bacchanalian excess in which the dog might indulge is but momentary:  it is something akin to the carnivalesque but temporary inversion of the social order that Mikhail Bakhtin, in his book on Dostoevsky’s Poetics, described as characteristic of the middle ages, a phenomenon also witnessed by anthropologists in many societies.  A similar set of ideas are conveyed in a second cartoon:  the dog is hectoring his owner, reminding him that the constraints that have

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been placed upon him are for his own good.  But this cartoon takes further the assault on man’s real or supposed distinction from all other species in being able to command the faculty of reason:  we think we are by far the higher species on account of our ability to reason, exercise restraint, and discipline ourselves, but we are fundamentally creatures of habit.

“You must be joking,” says the dog to a man who has extended his hand for the customary dog handshake.  Are you trying to give me the virus, the dog asks with an incredulous look on his face. We always expect dogs to take our extended hand:  the dog

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that does so is a “gentleman”, a good dog, a friendly family dog.  In these times of the pandemic, the dog can be daring and reject that extended (and often unwittingly condescending) hand.  The behavioral anthropologists at least must be convinced that the handshake originated as a greeting between two parties that were keen to show each other that they were willing to greet each other, and come to the negotiating table, without arms.  Somewhere there must be a social or cultural historian who has written on the handshake, but we do know that in countries such as India the handshake came as a colonial artefact.  Indeed, Hindu nationalists have been cowing in recent weeks of the now evident superiority, as they point out, of the traditional greeting in India, the namaskar which entails bringing the palms together before one’s and bowing.  Not less elegant, they may be reminded, is the adab of South Asian Muslims.

Every dog has its day, says an old English proverb that Shakespeare chewed on to render it thus:

        Let Hercules himself do what he may,
       The cat will mew and dog will have his day.  (Hamlet, V.i)

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to wag its tail in our face, every dog is surely having his day.

 

Subscribe to LA Social Science and be the first to learn more insight and knowledge from UCLA social science experts in upcoming video/audio sessions and posts dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo Credit: CNN.com

Professor Vinay Lal, UCLA Professor of History and Asian American Studies, has an informative blog titled, “Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal.” Recently, he has written “a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.”

Last week we presented his first three essays, the following is a full reprinting of his fourth essay, “The Coronavirus and the Humbling of America,” (April 7, 2020), in the series:

One of the most striking aspects of the novel coronavirus pandemic which has created an upheaval all over the world has to be the astonishing sight of the world’s richest society brought to its knees and appearing as a suppliant before the very country, China, that it holds responsible for the virus.  No doubt everyone serving the sitting President will take deep offense at this suggestion, and certainly the United States has made every effort to show to the world that, if anything, it intends to capitalize on this opportunity to further punish its enemies and show that it remains the world’s predominant power.  “While coronavirus ravages Iran,” noted the Washington Post in a headline two weeks ago, “U.S. sanctions squeeze it.”  The United States has not only ignored calls to suspend sanctions against Iran and Venezuela, but has rather ramped up the pressure against what it terms “rogue states”.  The Department Justice a few days ago unveiled charges of drug trafficking and money-laundering against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and over a dozen other high-ranking officials.  One can readily believe that the Ayatollahs in Iran and Maduro and his ilk in Venezuela have done little for their own people, but they do not go around peddling themselves as God’s gift to the world.  Evidently, if the United States is the example before us, nations do not become imperial powers by practicing humanity, much less chivalry.

As I write these lines, the United States has 387,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, nearly five times the number of cases in China where the outbreak first occurred.  China accounted, until well into mid-February, for the preponderant portion of the coronavirus cases around the world, and even as late as March 15th it accounted for more than half of the 5,833 deaths attributed to COVID-19. It is a different world today, three weeks later: nearly 12,300 Americans have been felled by COVID-19, and the United States accounts for more than a quarter of coronavirus cases globally. To take only one illustration of the desperate situation into which the country has been flung, at his daily press conference on April 4th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo noted that he expected that his state required 17,000 ventilators, but that the nation’s entire stockpile of ventilators amounted to 10,000.

We have lived in an enumerative world since the early 19th century, one in which we acquired, so to speak, an unquenchable taste (as Mary Poovey has described it) for “the fact” and, in the words of UCLA historian Ted Porter, a “trust in numbers”.  COVID-19 occupies many worlds and imaginaries, and the statistics in its wake have an obsessive and troubling quality of their own. One wakes up in the morning and turns to the Johns Hopkins corona global map, or to worldometers.info, to get the most accurate and updated figures charting the menacing spread of COVID-19.  But, apart from cases and fatalities, there are the constant references to many millions of masks, gloves, and test kits, tens of thousands of ventilators and ICU beds, a $2.2 trillion relief package over which the Republican wolves in the White House and present administration desired no oversight but their own, ten million unemployed in the United States in virtually an instant, and more:  the numbers come as an onslaught.

What astonishes the most, however, is the daily news items and vivid stories about the acute shortages of masks, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and hospital beds.  Until two weeks ago, most cities and municipalities in the US barely even had any test kits.  Doctors and health care workers throughout the country have described their desperation and their mounting fear that patients will simply have to be left to die. The stories of these shortages are now legion; the fear that medical workers, and those who work in grocery stores or in other “essential” services, experience is palpable.  Moreover, since the Trump regime has essentially left states to fend for themselves, the states have been forced into a bidding war among themselves for ventilators and medical equipment.  Lately, as Trump has come under attack for doing too little too late to tackle the pandemic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), has even outbid the states.  Apparently, even as the pandemic rages on, the principles of the free economy must not be abandoned and vulturous capitalists must be rewarded.

Let us not even speak of the fact that, as has happened so often in the past, many Americans still think of “big government” with utter disdain and that the mere taint of “socialism” is enough to discredit a person such as Bernie Sanders in the eyes of a substantial portion of the electorate, but that no one appears to be objecting at this juncture to all but the wealthiest Americans receiving hand-outs from the federal government.  The questions that are coming to the minds of outsiders to the country are these: How has it come to pass that the United States, with a little less than one-fifth of China’s population, now accounts for a quarter of the world’s cases?  What can be more pathetic and disgraceful than the sight of the world’s wealthiest country having such disregard for its own people? What kind of spectacle does the United States, which is chockablock with Nobel Laureates in medicine and the sciences, and which prides itself on the most advanced medical care that can be found anywhere, present to the world when doctors, nurses, and health care workers repeatedly have to plead for supplies and when their lives have been put at risk?

The commonplace answers may be all too evident to many and yet, as I would suggest, are inadequate. The Boston Globe some days ago opined that Trump has “blood on his hands”, and that the megalomaniac President of the United States has made a spectacle of himself is transparent to everyone. It is on record that for days and weeks he even denied that there was any problem to begin with, confidently predicting on February 26th, when the US had 57 confirmed cases, that COVID-19 cases in America would be “down close to zero”.  His claim in the last few days that he can be viewed as having done “a very good job” if the death toll can be kept to 100,000, or even 200,000 people, speaks only to his insufferable arrogance and criminal insensitivity.  Trump’s argument that no one could predict the pandemic says nothing at all, and not only because neither could other countries: political leaders get tested not when everything is hunky-dory, but rather when a situation demands a response that is not written down in the existing playbook.  What is also germane is the substantial public discussion that has brought to light many other features of the political landscape, some shaped largely by the present government and others more characteristically a part of the American political imaginary:  these include, among others, the recent downgrading of government offices designed to address epidemics, the decline of public funding for virus-related scientific research, and the highly fragmented response to the pandemic, particularly in view of the colossal failure of the White House to understand the gravity of the problem, across local, city, and state agencies.

There are other many familiar parts to the narrative that Trump, his political acolytes in Congress, and Fox News, which is to the Trump regime what Goebbels’ propaganda ministry was to the Nazi regime, have put forward:  all point to the fact that that the present political regime has a callous disregard for the lives of ordinary Americans, just as this narrative obscures the most important considerations which might help explain why the most powerful and wealthy country in the world has been humbled.  It will suffice to bring only two considerations to the fore. First, though overall health care expenditures in the United States outstrip by far spending in any other country, the proportion spent on public health is far less than in other advanced industrialized nations. The British newspaper the Guardian, which often has better reporting on the United States than any American newspaper, put forward the argument graphically with this headline in one article:  “Hookworm, a disease of extreme poverty, is thriving in the US South.  Why?” American medicine is resolutely focused on surgical interventions, on helping Americans deflect the moment of death and prolonging the lives of the affluent, and on what may be called the pharmaceutical industrial complex.  This is only a small catalog of its many ills. There is little or no money to be made in public health; moreover, public health is often dismissed as inconsequential since, on the view of political and medical elites, the lives of the poor, the working-class, and the most disadvantaged minorities are worth little and are even expendable.  Everything in the extraordinarily belated, bumbling, even chaotic American response to the coronavirus pandemic points to the deep and pervasive inequalities in the United States and the criminal neglect of the American state towards its own poor, especially African Americans and native Americans.

Secondly, COVID-19’s course in the United States suggests that the narrative of American exceptionalism continues to reign supreme.  The most insistent and insidious aspect of this narrative, barring the tiresome rehearsal of the view that the United States is the glorious gift of some special divine dispensation, is the supposition that the United States generally has nothing to learn from other nations.  Germany, for instance, has a large number of cases, but a much lower fatality rate than Spain, Italy, France, and some other EU nations:  it would seem to have had considerable success in containing the virus by early, rigorous, and sustained testing.  Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea have been exemplary in deploying a series of measures that have had the effect of containing and then mitigating the spread of the virus, even as South Korea, in particular, seemed that it would become the next major “hotspot” of the virus after China—a country which on April 6th, for the first time in four months, has declared no new case of COVID-19.  American officials and some public commentators have, quite naturally, been trying rather assiduously to discredit the Chinese communist party’s account of the spread and eventual containment of the coronavirus disease in China, and the claim that China deliberately under-stated the number of infections is being heard with ever greater vigor.  No one doubts that the Chinese are adept at obfuscating the truth; but we should also not doubt that America has, time after time, shown that it is singularly unwilling to learn from other nations. There is much to fear from the coronavirus pandemic; but I fear, too, that the United States will be insufficiently, perhaps barely, chastened by this experience. It takes some gift to learn humility.

 

Subscribe to LA Social Science and be the first to learn more insight and knowledge from UCLA social science experts in upcoming video/audio sessions and posts dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Vinay Lal, UCLA Professor of History and Asian American Studies, has an informative blog titled, “Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal.” Recently, he began writing “a series of articles on the implications of the coronavirus for our times, for human history, and for the fate of the earth.”

The following is an excerpt of the first piece, “The Singular and Sinister Exceptionality of the Coronavirus (COVID-19)” (March 15, 2020), written in the series:

 

The social, economic, and political turmoil around the COVID-19 or coronavirus pandemic presently sweeping the world is unprecedented in modern history or, more precisely, in the last one hundred years. Before we can even begin to understand its manifold and still unraveling ramifications, many of which are bound to leave their imprint for the foreseeable future, it is necessary to grasp the fact that there is nothing quite akin to it in the experience of any living person. Fewer than 5500 people have died so far, and of these just under 3100 in the Hubei province of China. There have been hundreds, perhaps a few thousand, wars, genocides, civil conflicts, insurrections, epidemics, droughts, earthquakes, and other ‘natural disasters’ that have produced far higher mortality figures. About 40 million people are estimated to have died in World War I; in the Second World War, something like 100 million people may have been killed, including military personnel, civilians, as well as those civilians who perished from war-induced hunger, famine, and starvation. Weighed in the larger scheme of things, the present mortality figures from COVID-19 barely deserve mention. And, yet, it is possible to argue that what is presently being witnessed as the world responds to the COVID-19 is singular, distinct, and altogether novel in our experience of the last one hundred years.

Why should that be the case? It would be a truism to say that no one ever quite expected something like the coronavirus to spring upon us and, virtually overnight in some places, alter the entire fabric of social existence. In 1994, an intrepid journalist and researcher, Laurie Garrett, published a voluminous book, The Coming Plague, subtitled “Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance.” Written a few years after AIDS rudely awakened the world to the fact that our war with microbes is relentless, and that modern science’s supposed conquest of infectious diseases is a fantasy, Garrett argued that there was every likelihood that new and more lethal diseases would emerge, unless human beings adopted a perspective that would be more mindful of a “dynamic, nonlinear state of affairs between Homo sapiens and the microbial world, both inside and outside their bodies.” In his introduction to the volume, Jonathan M. Mann, Professor of Epidemiology and International Health at Harvard, and Director of the Harvard AIDS Institute, suggested that AIDS “may well be just the first of the modern, large-scale epidemics of infectious diseases.” If air travel has become possible for over a billion people, infectious agents can also be introduced into “new ecologic settings” far more easily. If AIDS has a lesson to teach us, Mann warned twenty-five years ago, it is that “a health problem in any part of the world can rapidly become a health threat to many or all.”

If Garrett and Mann, and perhaps a handful of other people here and there, may have been prescient, still the scope of the worldwide panic and emergency in which we are all trapped is outside the realm of contemporary human experience. The first death from the coronavirus was reported in Hubei province, which has a population just short of 60 million, on 10 January 2020. The notice announcing the closure of all transportation services in Wuhan, the largest city of the province with 11 million people, was issued early on January 23 and had been virtually put into effect later in the day; and by the end of the following day, nearly the entire province had been sealed off. Further orders on February 13 and 20 shut down all non-essential services, including schools, and a complete cordon sanitaire had been placed around a province with as many people as Italy, which has now become the site of the next largest outbreak.  To Continue Reading, click HERE.

 

To read the second in the series, “The Coronavirus, the Enemy, and Nationalism” (March 21, 2020), click HERE.

To read the third in the series, “Remote Learning and Social Distancing:  The Political Economy and Politics of Corona Pedagogy” (March 30, 2020), click HERE.

 

Subscribe to LA Social Science and be the first to learn more insight and knowledge from UCLA social science experts in upcoming video/audio sessions and posts dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.